So this Zach Stewart fella pitched on Saturday and actually looked pretty decent. I've already made at least one Jeff Marquez joke at Stewart's expense, so it's only fair to go back and check if there's anything to like. Seeing as I was internetless on the day in question, it's in fact my first time watching the guy pitch. You'd think maybe I could wait to actually watch the guy before passing judgment. Not how I roll, y'all.
Also, it's not as though I didn't justify my dislike. The pitch f/x data prior to the recent start, his age and his minor league stats were all signs that maybe there really isn't much there. He's turning 25 and hasn't really dominated at any level. There's nothing there that suggests he oozes potential. Really though it's the pitch f/x data that was depressing.
For one, the scouting reports had him as a sinkerballer who could get groundballs in plenitude. But the pfx only really agreed that he had sinker velocity. The big horizontal movement wasn't really there. A few heaters were the legit sinker variety but mostly they were weak imitations. On top of that, he appears to very rarely throw a change up and gets very very few whiffs with his slider. At best, that's a scouting report that reads as a future reliever. Nothing against the guy, but without grounders and/or whiffs it's basically impossible to be a major league pitcher.
So imagine my surprise going back through the box score to see that Stewart induced 16 grounders to just 2 fly balls. Perhaps maybe Don Cooper is already working his magic? Perhaps possibly maybe.
The most notable thing is the velocity bump. Scouting reports from Sickels and others reported his velo in the 91-95 mph range rather than the 88-92 mph he showed in his 3 starts with the Jays. Stewart was a full mph better in this start than his previous three. On top of that, his fastball showed fairly different movement. He threw a lot of true four seamers, including the two he threw to get his two strike outs on the day. In fact all of his heaters showed significantly less horizontal movement than in previous starts. While it might only mean ground balls when he has good location or squares off against bad hitters, this is actually heartening. 92 with a lot of rise helped make Octavio Dotel's career.
The slider on the other hand showed no real improvement. He got dishearteningly few whiffs from it. He didn't throw a change and he broke off two show-me curves. Twins batters consistently either saw the slider out of his hand and laid off or they were able to track it and make contact. Granted, he kept them low in the zone and got a decent number of grounders as a result, but sliders are for strikeouts. Right now he's not much more than a one-pitch pitcher. That's not a recipe for MLB success.
I'm not saying I don't see anything to work with there. I think he's a good athlete, for one. I saw extraneous mechanical flourishes that varied somewhat, but he's coordinated enough to get into a good position to deliver the pitch. He seems to have a feel for changing up the movement on his fastball and goes with what's working. He shows an eagerness to throw strikes and stay around the plate. Definitely not a nibbler. And he wants to move the ball up, down, in and out. These all suggest he's got a sophisticated idea of what it takes to compete in the majors. If he can stay 91-92 with good movement as a starter, that's a decent foundation.
From there though, he needs an off-speed pitch or two. And of course Don Cooper has a long track record teaching the slider/cutter. Danks, Sale, Floyd and Humber can all attest to this. Heck, Coop has even done a pretty decent job with Gavin's change. So it's far from impossible Stewart becomes a legit starter. At this point though, he's mostly just potential until we get some evidence of how his side sessions with Coop are going. So: keep an eye on that slider. See if he starts throwing it up and in on lefties for jam shots. See if he starts getting whiffs from righties. If those start going in a good direction, we may have a real asset going forward.
If on the other hand that extra velocity and different movement was just a young guy feeling the adrenaline and overthrowing his fastball, it may well be the case that his biggest asset is a lack of a giant salary. That's not the worst thing ever.